Learn from those who don't love you

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Love me, love me not. Getting customers to love you isn't as simple or random as pulling petals from a daisy. Like any relationship, it takes work. Customer satisfaction is crucial in e-mail, where customers can disengage from your brand with one click on the unsubscribe link or spam button.

You must be respectful of their permission and privacy, attentive to their preferences (stated and implied) in the relevancy of your messages and responsive to their requests in a timeframe consistent with a real-time medium.

Managing customer dissatisfaction shouldn't be left to chance, either. And that's what I'll address here.

Despite your best efforts, there will be some customers who love you not. It's what you learn from dissatisfied customers that lets you avoid producing more of them and, just maybe, earn the right to win them back. And in this medium, it's also what dictates whether your e-mail will be delivered to those customers who still love you.

Though complaint rates aren't the only measure of customer satisfaction, they are the main trigger for Internet service provider blocking and filtering today and are destined to drive reputation systems in the future. Therefore, it's critical to diagnose the underlying causes of complaints.

Complaint rates (and other customer satisfaction indicators) should be a key metric for all e-mail marketers. List size is not the Holy Grail in e-mail. The size of your engaged customer list is. In business, as in life, it comes down to who loves you. And, like any relationship, you need to listen when the other party complains.

Typically, high complaint rates are attributable to several factors associated with marketing practices. I suggest you investigate in the order shown below.

List management. The obvious place to start is in how you manage your list:

• Feedback loops: Most e-mail marketers know about whitelisting, yet many don't subscribe to the complaint "feedback loops" offered to legitimate mailers by several major ISPs. These loops give a barometer of customer satisfaction and let you remove unhappy recipients from your list. Moreover, by analyzing complaints you can isolate their causes and identify "at risk" recipients at domains that may not offer feedback loops. Failure to subscribe (or act on the complaints you receive) may produce a cumulative effect that pushes you over an ISP's complaint threshold.

• Subscription practices: Ask yourself whether customers have a reasonable expectation to receive your e-mail and whether it's consistent with what they've said they want. Discontinue sharing lists across business units if you're doing so without explicit customer permission. Complaints often result from customers getting content inconsistent with their expectations or preferences. Also, don't ask customers for their preferences if you don't intend to (or can't) customize content accordingly.

• Unsubscribe practices: Failure to process unsubscribe requests promptly can precipitate complaints on subsequent mailings and result in the blacklisting of your IP address or domain name.

• Customer engagement: A strong correlation exists between customers' level of engagement and their propensity to complain. Chronically disengaged customers (no opens or clicks, no cross-channel activity) should be targeted for reactivation. If unsuccessful, prune them from your list.

Targeting and frequency. Complaint rates often spike when a new list source is introduced or an infrequently used part of the list is reengaged. It's usually due to customers getting something they're not expecting. High frequency mailings also can produce high complaints if not targeted to your most loyal customers. Compare complaints to your list sources, list segments and mailing cadence to isolate the correlations.

Content. Content can produce complaints if it is inconsistent with the targeting or inappropriate to the audience. Check whether specific campaigns (and their content) spur higher complaint rates.

Another issue involves image suppression. If your e-mail uses heavy HTML images, examine what it looks like when suppression occurs. If recipients see just white space, they may think it's spam.

Look at what shows above the fold and in the preview pane. Consider using a text lead-in and "text under" on images. Check your brand identity (domain name, subject line). Ensure customers know the e-mail is from you.

Of course, once you address the causes of complaints, you'll want to have a proactive, systematic program for monitoring and controlling your complaint rate.

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